Music for the community anthem of Castilla

We got it right. With those two words, Luis López Álvarez gave his approval, in 1976, to the work of musicalizing his masterpiece, the poetry book ‘Los comuneros’, by Nuevo Mester de Juglaría. With this album, the Segovian folk group, a pioneer in the recovery, reworking and dissemination of root music, achieved great success. They sold 100,000 copies and with it they perpetuated the community memory for generations. Of all the songs, one especially, the one that closes the album, has become an unofficial anthem of Castile. ‘Song of Hope’ It starts with these verses: «1521 and in April to be more exact, in Villalar they execute those who ask for justice. Damn those who signed the sentence! Verses that claim freedom for Castilla and that it is difficult to read without intoning with the music that led them to on stage.

The poem ‘Los comuneros’ by López Álvarez is a descriptive epic of the War of the Communities of Castile and the execution of its leaders, who were martyrs of its ideals of freedom and precursors of democracy. The work faithfully portrays what was undoubtedly a great social and political revolution. It didn’t turn out as its drivers expected; However, today it is considered the germ of European constitutionalism. Aware of its importance, the Bercian poet Luis López Álvarez published in 1972 this epic poem about the commune deed, under the seal of Cuadernos para el Diálogo.

Fernando Ortiz, founding member of the group Nuevo Mester de Juglaría, tells in this interview how they made the musical arrangements of that poetic work of great historical rigor and all its subsequent repercussions. Nearly 52 years old since his formation, Nuevo Mester de Juglaría is, together with Los Sabandeños, the dean of folk music groups in Spain.

The members of the Segovian musical formation coon Luis López Álvarez (5i), author of the poem 'Los comuneros', in the Villalar field in 2001.
The members of the Segovian musical formation coon Luis López Álvarez (5i), author of the poem ‘Los comuneros’, in the Villalar field in 2001.

–How did the idea of ​​musicalizing the Luis López Álvarez poem come about?

– Ours is a work of dissemination, but also of compilation and research on folklore. We have about 30 albums, two books and we have performed more than 2,000 concerts throughout the Spanish geography and also in America and Europe. ‘Los Comuneros’ is an essential album for us as a group, and also for a good part of our audience. The poem came into our hands in 1973, the year after it was published. We loved the romance and immediately thought of making an adaptation with musical elements from the Castilian tradition. We asked Luis López Álvarez, who was working in Havana at that time. We wrote him a letter that he replied giving us permission. We immediately got to work.

– How was the process of musicalizing the poem at a time when the recovery of freedoms was a hot topic?

-The adaptation itself was not complicated by the virtues of the text itself. The poem has all the essences of a traditional romance. It is a song of deed and both the meter and the clarity of the narrative made the task much easier for us. Also, the group at that time had an important archive of compiled songs. The text is long and did not fit on a disc, therefore, we made a selection of the episodes that could be most interesting, so that they also had chronological and historical coherence. It was a joint effort and in a few months the album was ready. Together we made a coherent and respectful story with the spirit of the book. Luis López Álvarez told us that many books had been sold as a result of the musicalization. When we prepared and recorded ‘Los comuneros’ in 1976, Spain was in a very special moment. A dictatorship was beginning to be left behind, and the illusion for a process that could return freedom to the Spanish people was very great, not only for the younger people, but for the majority of the population. All that illusion was little by little giving rise to what has been called the Transition, which was and continues to be one of the most important political and coexistence achievements in the history of contemporary Spain. In this context, for us the publication of the album made us think that, from the point of view of the culture of our land, we were contributing our grain of sand to that illusion and that collective moment.

“The adaptation was not complicated by the virtues of the text itself, which has all the essences of a traditional romance”
Fernando ortiz

– What was the author’s reaction when you showed him the result of your work?

– At that time he worked as a diplomat in Havana. At the end of 1976, he told us that he would travel to Spain and we arranged with him to audition the album. We did it in Segovia, at the home of a mutual friend, Carlos Carrasco. First we heard side A, then side B and when he finished, Luis only said two words: “We got it right.” That very concise message filled us with satisfaction, firstly because speaking in the plural meant that he felt part of the project and secondly, because he gave us the go-ahead, which was something that logically worried us. It was a project that we had carried out thousands of miles apart and with no more consultation than a letter. We were very moved by those two words he spoke. It was an unforgettable night.

– How was the public reaction to this work?

“It was moving.” We were very surprised by how quickly successful it was. Many thousands of copies of the album were sold. It was on the charts and the songs became essential in the concerts, especially ‘Castilla canto de esperanza’, which little by little became a kind of unofficial anthem of the Castilian identity. The album was very important. In fact, the group served as a reaffirmation of their reason for being. He encouraged us to continue and here we continue.

50th anniversary concert of Nuevo Mester de Juglaría.
50th anniversary concert of Nuevo Mester de Juglaría.

– Do you remember any special anecdote from those first performances with the album?

–The first audition of ‘Los comuneros’ took place on July 21, 1977, in the Plaza Juan Bravo in Segovia. Then we premiered at the Monumental Theater in Madrid and from there, we toured all of Spain. The premiere at Las Atarazanas Reales in Barcelona was memorable. There was a full house and at the end of the concert, there was a manifestation of Castilian fervor. Everything was filled with flags, something that at that time and in that city was emotional and surprising.

–And Luis López Álvarez, how did you experience the success of the album?

-He lived it with great satisfaction. He was very involved and also participated several times in the show. Some parts of it are narrated and when he came to Spain he sometimes acted as a narrator. He participated in such emblematic theaters as the Monumental in Madrid or the Calderón in Valladolid, that means that he felt comfortable with the adaptation and with us. The relationship with Luis was always excellent.

«From the point of view of the culture of our land, the album was our grain of sand to the illusion of the Transition»
Fernando ortiz

– What led you to expand your work in 2004?

—When the first version was released, vinyl records allowed a maximum duration of 20 minutes per side. With the arrival of CDs, which allowed a longer duration, we decided to make a second version with some of the historical episodes that could not be included in the first album. We recorded it live in numerous theaters throughout Spain. We have reached the V Centenary of the Communards and the album is still valid, it continues to be heard and is a reference in our land.

On-line celebration on April 23

– There have been many ‘Villalares’ giving voice to the field. What does that mean for the group?

–In fact, we have been to Villalar many times and that excites us tremendously, because there a huge complicity is established with the people who listen to the concert. The group there becomes a mere transmitter of feelings and emotions. In Villalar the public is always much more important than the group. On April 23, in full confinement, we wanted to be present at the celebration, but this time it was ‘online’. They helped us with the assembly, as it was something we were not used to. It was an emotional and well-received performance, with over 100,000 views on YouTube.

–In this town they even have a street with their name on it.

“Villalar has always been kind to us.” He dedicated a street to us next to the Plaza Mayor. It is something that fills us with pride. We have also been heralds of their parties. Recognitions that are very dear to us. Villalar has a very valuable history and we are proud that he makes us part of it.

– Do you have new projects in mind related to the Luis López Álvarez poem?

–The album ‘Los comuneros’ is an important element in the traditional culture of the community, that is why we are making arrangements for a new version, together with the symphony orchestra, which we intend to release in the summer if the pandemic allows it and we put it on disposition of the organization of the V centenary, which curiously has not remembered the New Mester for the acts.

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